Books and Films


Poet Carol Anne Duffy, was presented with a butt (720 bottles) of sherry at a recent ceremony in Jerez, Spain, to celebrate her appointment as Poet Laureate.

Carol Ann Duffy signs her butt of sherry.

The Sherry Institute of Spain revived the old tradition of paying The Poet Laureate a ‘butt of sack’ when Ted Hughes was appointed Laureate in 1984. Andrew Motion was also presented with more sherry than he could possibly drink when he took up the Laureate mantel in 1999.

The press release that the Sherry Institute sent me includes a rather banal quote from Duffy. ‘With your Third British Poet Laureate standing here, I think we can say that we have a tradition – and a lovely connection between two countries who value both poetry and great Sherry.’

I think Duffy is a fantastic poet – funny, insightful, original – so I was disappointed to read this bland sentence, especially as wine is one of my favourite topics and I love seeing it described in a way that is poetic and full of life. So I pulled my copy of Duffy’s poems The World’s Wife off the shelf and had a look to see if I could find anything about wine.

I did in the poem Mrs Midas. The poem is the story of Midas who is granted a wish by Dionysus, he asks for a special power so that everything he touches turns to gold. When he comes home to Mrs Midas she pours him a glass of wine ‘with a shaking hand, a fragrant bone dry white from Italy, then watched as he picked up the glass, goblet, golden chalice, drank.’

Here wine is a metaphor for the simple, everyday pleasures in life, something special that brightens up a quiet evening, something that has now been lost in a foolish pursuit of extreme wealth. It is the sort of witty and intelligent, feet on the ground, writing that has earned Duffy so many fans.

I hope Duffy enjoys her butt of sherry especially as I doubt that she would let such a generous accolade go to her head.

Here is Mrs Midas in full:

Mrs Midas by Carol Ann Duffy

It was late September. I’d just poured a glass of wine, begun

to unwind, while the vegetables cooked. The kitchen

filled with the smell of itself, relaxed, its steamy breath

gently blanching the windows. So I opened one,

then with my fingers wiped the other’s glass like a brow.

He was standing under the pear tree snapping a twig.

Now the garden was long and the visibility poor, the way

the dark of the ground seems to drink the light of the sky,

but that twig in his hand was gold. And then he plucked

a pear from a branch – we grew Fondante d’Automne -

and it sat in his palm like a light bulb. On.

I thought to myself, Is he putting fairy lights in the tree?

He came into the house. The doorknobs gleamed.

He drew the blinds. You know the mind; I thought of

the Field of the Cloth of Gold and of Miss Macready

He sat in that chair like a king on a burnished throne.

The look on his face was strange, wild, vain. I said,

What in the name of God is going on? He started to laugh.

I served up the meal. For starters, corn on the cob.

Within seconds he was spitting out the teeth of the rich.

He toyed with his spoon, then mine, then with the knives, the forks.

He asked where was the wine. I poured with shaking hand,

a fragrent, bone-dry white from Italy, then watched

as he picked up the glass, goblet, golden chalice, drank.

It was then that I started to scream. He sank to his knees.

After we had both calmed down, I finished the wine

on my own, hearing him out. I made him sit

on the other side of the room and keep his hands to himself.

I locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone.

The toilet I didn’t mind. I couldn’t believe my ears:

how he’d had a wish. Look, we all have wishes; granted.

But who has wishes granted? Him. Do you know about gold?

It feeds no one; aurum, soft, untarnishable; slakes

no thirst. He tried to light a cigarette; I gazed, entranced,

as the blue flame played on its luteous stem. At least,

I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.

Seperate beds. In fact, I put a chair against my door,

near petrified. He was below, turning the spare room

into the tomb of Tutankhamun. You see, we were passionate then,

in those halcyon days; unwrapping each other, rapidly,

like presents, fast food. But now I feared his honeyed embrace,

the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art.

And who, when it comes to the crunch, can live

with a heart of gold? That night, I dreamt I bore

his child, its perfect ore limbs, its little tongue

like a precious latch, its amber eyes

holding their pupils like flies. My dream-milk

burned in my breasts. I woke to the streaming sun.

So he had to move out. We’d a caravan

in the wilds, in a glade of its own. I drove him up

under cover of dark. He sat in the back.

And then I came home, the women who married the fool

who wished for gold. At first I visited, odd times,

parking the car a good way off, then walking.

You knew you were getting close. Golden trout

on the grass. One day, a hare hung from a larch,

a beautiful lemon mistake. And then his footprints,

glistening next to the river’s path. He was thin,

delirious; hearing, he said, the music of Pan

from the woods. Listen. That was the last straw.

What gets me now is not the idiocy or greed

but lack of thought for me. Pure selfishness. I sold

the contents of the house and came down here.

I think of him in certain lights, dawn, late afternoon,

and once a bowl of apples stopped me dead. I miss most,

even now, his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch.

Can a Dionysian revel be improved with a little Apollonian logic? Or it is always good to round off a day in the library with an evening in the bar.

A couple of years ago I visited Nicolas Joly’s vineyard at Coulée de Serrant in Savennières, the Loire Valley, France. His wines are well documented as being some of the greatest, most intellectually pleasing, white wines on the planet. Joly is also one the wine world’s most vociferous exponents of biodynamic agriculture. And he is rather odd.
Nicolas-Joly-11584_MED
When Joly and I walked out into the vineyard, passing the long-horned cows, I immediately noticed a row of Tuscan cypress trees at the far end of the vines. Their slim height was such a physical contrast to the row upon row of low-growing vines that the whole vineyard seemed to be transformed into a three-dimensional space. My eye, instead of looking down to find out about the soil, the rock and the vines roots, travelled up to the sky and sun above me. I became aware of the air and the rain.

I wondered aloud about the trees and Joly explained that he had planted them because he divides plants into ‘Apollonian’, or sky-reaching like the cypress trees and ‘Dionysian’ or falling to the soil, like the vines. He wanted the trees to balance the energies in the vineyard. This may all sounds like a load of new-age psycho-babble but when it translates into wine as good as Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2005 then I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides I’ve always been predisposed to indulge eccentricity.

However to really understand this idea I needed to remind myself of what Apollonian and Dionysian actually mean. When Nietzsche uses these two expressions in Birth of Tragedy he describes them as being:

Apollo (Apollonian or Apollinian): the dream state or the wish to create order, principium individuationis (principle of individuation), plastic (visual) arts, beauty, clarity, stint to formed boundaries, individuality, celebration of appearance/illusion, human beings as artists (or media of art’s manifestation), self-control, perfection, exhaustion of possibilities, creation.

Dionysus (Dionysian): chaos, intoxication, celebration of nature, instinctual, intuitive, pertaining to the sensation of pleasure or pain, individuality dissolved and hence destroyed, wholeness of existence, orgiastic passion, dissolution of all boundaries, excess, human being(s) as the work and glorification of art, destruction.
dionysus
Or very roughly speaking: intellect v emotion. So how does this translate into wine? Dionysian is perhaps more obvious. It is intoxication, it is en vino veritas, it is the abandonment of inhibitions, hedonism and feasting. But what of Apollonian: order, perfection, exhaustion of possibilities?  If a wine engages me intellectually and does more than just get me a bit tipsy and make me giggle then these ideas are pertinent. If I like a wine because of its aromas and flavours, because it has balance, character and personality, if it is more than just an alcoholic fix, then the idea of a wine being Apollonian is plausible. Anyone who gets addicted to wine because they are curious about how it will taste, where it comes from, how it reflects that place, how it will age, is approaching their glass with an Apollonian head. That fact that this intellectual stimulus comes hand in hand with some Dionysian intoxication is an added bonus. After all a day in the library is always more satisfying if it is rounded off by an evening in the bar.

So back to the vineyard is it possible that a row of ‘Apollonian’ cypress trees can increase the intellectual pleasure of the wine in the glass? I do know that adding other plants, so the vineyard is not a mono-culture, makes it less at risk of disease. I also know that anyone who approaches their vineyard husbandry with this amount of care is going to make a wine that tastes individual and has a complexity that a mass produced wine from a vineyard of uniform plants stretching for miles on sanitised soils can only dream of. I also know that gardens and theatre sets that are three dimensional rather than flat  are more pleasing and all encompassing therefore making them more convivial working environments.

As for a plant being able to channel something as metaphysical as Apollonian energy, I think the idea is so contrary to Apollonian logic that I need some Dionysian intoxication in order to even countenance it. But as I’m currently enjoying a very good glass of Coulée de Serrant, Roches aux Moines 2005, I am starting to get my head round it.

Great food, highly skilled chefs, a ticking clock and judgement day. This is the haute cuisine of TV dinners.
great-british-menu-logo1

I’m not usually a fan of TV cookery programmes, to me they seem to be polarised into either the ridiculously macho (Gordon Ramsay, Hell’s Kitchen and the two obstreperous numpties who present Master Chef) or the simperingly yummy-mummsy (Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson). Although while on this soap-box I must say that I think Heston Blumenthal is the estimable exception to the usual TV fodder. His food may be impossible to replicate, but his shows are informative (particularly his recent historical series), always highly entertaining and his knowledge and passion for his subject are indisputable. Plus his originality put him in the top tier of Great British eccentrics and that is rarefied ground.

So, Blumenthal aside,  given my usual indifference to telly cooking I’ve surprised myself by becoming addicted, for the second year running, to the BBC series The Great British Menu. The basic premise of the program is professional chefs (many of them Michelin starred) compete to cook a dish at a four-course banquet. Last year’s event was a showcase of modern British cuisine served to a group of the world’s greatest chefs, this year the theme is ‘a taste of home’ and the guests will be service men and women returning from Afghanistan. This may be a BBC/armed forces PR exercise (don’t mention Iraq) however the presentation is admirably un-jingoistic and a-political whilst still paying respect to the risk and hard work that individuals at the front-line have taken.

One of the reasons I like the Great British Menu is the food, not the chef’s egos, is centre stage and while the cooking may be aspirational it is very inspiring. This week Northern Ireland competitor, Danny Miller, served soda farls topped with sautéd chicken livers as a side order to a chicken broth. It looked so delicious and doable that I skipped off to the kitchen and whipped out a skillet. Opposite him three-star Michelin chef Claire Smyth’s comments on presentation and her beautifully refined Irish stew have made me re-think some of my more ‘homely’ concoctions.

There are, however, other dishes which have left me open-mouthed with amazement at the skill involved in their execution: one being Alan Murchison’s caramel globe filled with raspberries and cream and the other being Daniel Clifford’s smoking smoked egg and duck breast starter. I wish I could cook as well as that.

What is also interesting is how the program works as a litmus paper for the fads and fashions of food. Last year’s ubiquitous foams and powders have been replaced in 2009 by smears of sauces. And the cooking method du jour seems to be vacuum packing meat or fish and poaching it in a water bath. I can see that it is a very delicate way of maximising flavours although I wasn’t surprised that the method provoked sneering ‘boil-in-the-bag’ comments from overseeing chef, Richard Corrigan. Own smoking is also popular this year and while I think this would add an interesting flavour component, I imagine it is damn hard to do judiciously.

Thankfully last year’s endless ‘surf and turf’ obsession seems to be waning; surely good fish should be delicious enough by itself without the addition of stewed beef or offal. And on the subject of offal while I agree that the whole animal should be used, and it is hideously wasteful not to use all parts of the beast, there is no need to underline this point by putting the whole carcass on a single plate.

So while everyone on Great British Menu knows they are here for the food, chefs of this calibre inevitable have big characters and true personalities will always out at this level of pressure. One of the funniest unscripted moments was when, after five days of backbiting in the kitchen during the Central England heat, Daniel Clifford proclaimed ‘we have had a friendly week.’ Fellow competitor Glynn Purnell just turned and looked at him.

My favourite characters of the programme so far are: Scottish overseeing chef Jeremy Lee who is erudite, camp and vaguely posh: characteristics rarely seen in a professional kitchen; Richard Corrigan who while overseeing the Northern Irish heat, mugs away to the unseen TV audience, expressing his delight or disagreement and Claire Smyth who is the epitome of calm, preparation and ability.

As for the judges, I suspect that Prue Leith would do a perfectly good job by herself and doesn’t need her two side-kicks Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton. However Peyton’s sartorial misjudgement alone is worth turning the telly on for and Matthew Fort undeniably knows his scoff although I am sure he is more of an eater than a cook.

So there are another few weeks of Great British Menu to go which means: some great and some ridiculous dishes; more overworked food getting shot down for being pretentious; more seemingly banal dishes e.g. a cheese and pickle sandwich, being transformed into something magical; more over-wrought chefs starting to sweat as they try to pull off seemingly impossible culinary feats and all summed up by ex-royal reporter Jennie Bond’s tweed skirt and no knickers commentary. It is great cooking, great TV and I’ll be watching.

Katrina’s website

The first English cookery book  is about the top table of Medieval cookery.  Surprisingly with a little adaptation its recipes can easily be re-created. Many are delicious.

The Forme of Cury is a recipe collection created by the ‘chief master cooks of King Richard II’. I have been hunting around for a copy of this for a while, so I was delighted to find a copy on-line:

http://cunnan.sca.org.au/wiki/Cunnan:Recipes_from_the_Forme_of_Cury

English King Richard II (1367 – 1400) deserves some sympathy as he was just a ten-year-old boy when he was thrust on to the throne. But while he may have been naïve and ill equipped to deal with the demands of leadership he never the less abused his power, robbed his subjects and ordered the deaths of many of his advisors and high ranking officials as well as imposing draconian taxes and laws on his people. He was dethroned in 1399 then imprisoned before being murdered by conspirators in 1400.
richard2
During his reign the Monarch squandered vast sums of money on food and feasting. He was the first Royal who opted to eat alone instead of being the centre piece of a courtly dining spectacle, all observed by a rabble of peasants who came nightly to view their King at table. Richard II preferred to eat his gourmet delights away from prying eyes. He ate the best, the most exotic and finely executed food available. His Chief Master Cook had a tough job to fill and he recorded his recipes and achievements in the manuscript The Forme of Cury.

This is a roll call of the recipes prepared for this self-absorbed ego-maniac King. It  is also a unique insight into the best food available in the Middle Ages. It also shows that while the peasant class may have eked out an existence on gruel, at the Royal Top Table, food was imaginative and refined.

What strikes me about The Forme of Cury is that the recipes are actually fairly approachable. The original manuscript was written in Middle English and it is worth looking at this text before reading the modernized version in order to get a sense of the manuscript, a real feeling that this is an authentic historical document.

As for the food itself, some of the ingredients are unavailable, (I simply can’t remember the last time I saw lamprey in the supermarket) others you might not want to cook (I really don’t think cooking swan is worth the jail time) but there are other recipes that can be executed fairly easily and I would encourage anyone who enjoys cooking and/or history to take a look at the manuscript and have a go. (Do post a comment and let me know how you got on!)

Egurdouce Of Fysshe or sweet and sour fish is my favourite so far. This dish is similar to Spanish escabeche or Japanese nanbanzuke: fried fish marinated in a sweet and sour dressing. It is wonderful to see a historical English fish dish that is so creative and delicious. (Note to self: idea for a future blog, how the 16th century Puritan Reformation did English fish cookery up like a kipper.)

So now for a taste of the Medieval:

Egurdouce Of Fysshe.

Take Loches other Tenches other Solys smyte hem on pecys. fry hem in oyle. take half wyne half vynegur and sugur & make a siryp. do therto oynouns icorue raisouns coraunce. and grete raysouns. do therto hole spices. gode powdours and salt. messe the fyssh & lay the sewe aboue and serue forth.

Sweet and Sour Fish (my translation)

Take loaches, other trenches, other soles and cut them into pieces. Fry them in oil. Take half wine, half vinegar and sugar and make a syrup. Core onions, raisins, currants and sultanas. Add to that whole spice, good powders and fish. Plate the fish, and lay the stew about it, then serve it forth.

Sweet and Sour Fish (my 21st Century Version)

500g filleted mixed fish (pollock, salmon, mackerel – good to have a mix of textures)
50g flour to coat
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
cury4
100ml white wine
50ml vinegar
100g mixed dried fruit
1 tablespoon of honey
1 large onion
Pinch each of: ginger, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cloves, nutmeg etc (There’s scope to play around here)
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

Finally dice the onion and sweat in the oil for a good 10 minutes until soft and tender. Add the honey, spices, mixed fruit, wine and vinegar and bring to the boil.
Coat the fish in flour and gently fry.
Place fish in serving dish and pour the sweet and sour marinade over.
Leave to chill then serve it forth.

Katrina’s Website

A pleasant evening at the Green and Blue in Dulwich gave me some great food and wine matching ideas but also a taste for the macabre. 

The evening couldn’t have been more pleasant, or the company more convivial, but as soon as I got home after an evening pairing wine and chocolate at the delightful Green & Blue Wine Bar in Dulwich, I sped to my bookshelf for a copy of Dram Stroker’s Dracula and looked for the most blood chilling passage that I could find. Why? How could an evening’s wine tasting possibly inspire this desire for the Victorian Gothic? Lets start at the beginning.

Kate Thal, gifted sommelier and owner of Green & Blue, is a big fan of matching chocolate with red wine. ‘The match isn’t mainstream yet, so it’s a great way to surprise people and introduce them to something new,’ she explains. To evangelise her message she’d generously invited a group of food bloggers round to taste her theory. (See links at bottom of this posting.)

We kicked off with what Kate referred to as a ‘no brainer’ match: Montemuzma’s milk chocolate with a great Pinot Noir from Central Otago, New Zealand, Amisfield 2006 (price £22). Packed with red fruits and a lightly oaky background, this wine could easily be described as a ‘modern classic.’ The chocolate was smooth and inevitable creamy, even to the point of being cloying, but then I’m not a big fan of milk chocolate, however paired with the wine the chocolate became fresh, clean and far more attractive.

chocolate_wineThe chocolate got more serious with the next pair. Montezuma’s ‘Dark Side’ chocolate was matched with Ridford Dale Merlot, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2005 (price £13.50). The wine had plenty of dark fruit, peppery characteristics and well-structured tannins which made this a pretty sophisticated rendition of this frequently pedestrian grape variety. Together the wine and chocolate made a good savoury and intense match. Fellow food blogger, Stephen, of http://dinnerdiary.org/ commented that these pairings seemed to work best when the tannins in the wine are on an equal footing with the percentage of cocoa solids. I agreed. For me the discord with this Merlot/dark chocolate match didn’t come from the wine or the cocoa solids, but the sugar in the chocolate, which jarred raspingly on my palate and was just one flavour sensation too many. The match also confirmed my view that when using chocolate in savoury cooking, (chilli con carne etc) it’s far better to go for cocoa powder than solid chocolate because the confectioner’s sugar will always be an unknown quantity in the mix.

The next wine was a Bandol, Domaine la Suffrene, which is made from 100% Mourvedre. It had a tremendous and typically Southern France garrigue (lavender, rosemary and thyme) aroma and a really dry and tarry palate. The chocolate was Montezuma’s dark chocolate which has 73% cocoa solids. There wasn’t a hint of anything sweet and sugary in this match instead it was as dark and brooding as a stormy November night. This was gourmet hardcore and definitely not for those with a delicate disposition. In a word it was Gothic and I loved it.

 The final match lightened the mood: Bera Moscato d’Asti, Canelli 2007 (price £15.00). This is probably the best Moscato d’Asti I’ve ever tasted. It was grapey, floral and very clean and lightly effervescent. Matched with white chocolate this made a match that was as pretty and pure as a Dracula victim. Something for all tastes then.

So to sum up, I agree with Kate that dark chocolate and red wine is a fabulous and unusual match and is definitely one to try at home. There’s scope to play around with Pinot Noir and Merlot but here’s what I suggest for a truly Gothic experience: get a bottle of Bandol, the above mentioned Domaine la Suffrene or Château de Pibarnon is another great example, make a batch of my beetroot crisps with chocolate chilli sauce, (recipe above right) draw the curtains, light some candles and settle down with a Gothic novel or film just be prepared to be very, very scared! And if you want to get in the mood, read on for a chilling extract from Dracula.

dracula

There he lay looking as if youth had been half-renewed, for the white hair and moustache were changed to dark iron grey; the cheeks were fuller, and the white skin seemed ruby-red underneath; the mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood; he lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion*

 And to think I thought red wine and chocolate would be a radical taste sensation…

 

 My fellow bloggers at the wine and chocolate evening were:

 

http://dinnerdiary.org/

http://aroundbritainwithapaunch.blogspot.com/

http://cheesenbiscuits.blogspot.com/

http://helengraves.co.uk/

http://www.gourmet-chick.com/

 

My thanks to Kate Thal and the Green & Blue Wine Bar  for such an interesting and unusual evening. 

*Bram Stroker Dracula Wordsworth Classics 1993

Katrina’s website

A diet that has been sustainably produced threatens to be a dull affair, but choosing food that is made in harmony with the landscape can open the door to a delicious world.

 Last week I attended a press launch for a marketing campaign called ‘Discover the Origin’. It groups together a delicious quintet of food and wine, namely: Parma Ham, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Burgundy wines, Port and Douro Valley wines. The event was an interesting and fun mix of wine tasting, cookery demonstrations and talks about the individual products. But there was a serious point grouping five PDO (Product of Designated Origin) together as this strikes at the heart of contemporary food politics and raises a number of apposite points around farming, provenance, food miles and diet.

 

These are issues that I have been particularly conscious of recently as I have also been reading a book called So Shall We Reap by Colin Tudge, with the onerous sub-title How everyone who liable to be born in the next ten thousand years could eat very well indeed; and why, in practice, our immediate descendants are likely to be in serious trouble. (As this book was published in 2003 then it is slightly out of date, it doesn’t examine the current food crisis and the rising price of staples, nor the impact of crops grown for bio-fuels but is still on the button for much.)

 

While Tudge’s weighty tome and the enjoyable ‘Taste the Origin’ day of food and wine tasting couldn’t have been more different presentations, there were a number of times where the message overlapped and made an interesting parallel.

 

The book points out that ‘if farming is to be as productive as possible and yet be sustainable, it must first and foremost march to the drum of biology; and this means that it must acknowledge and play to the strengths of landscape, the climate, the crops and livestock, which of course is geared primarily to the human requirement for good food.’[1]

 

The Parma ham tasted at the press conference is a text book example of these principles: the hams must be produced and cured in the hills around Parma; the pigs are fed the whey by-product of locally produced parmigiano-reggiano cheese; the hams are air cured and the final product is revered by foodies all over the world. (My 13 year old nephew is a particular fan.) As Paulo Tramelli Marketing Manager for Parma Ham said, ‘I was in born in Parma, this ham is not just a product but it is part of our heritage.’ This is local food developed in harmony with the landscape.

 

All highly estimable and it is tempting to take this a step further and to extol the virtues of eating locally and there’s a lot to be said for such purism and if I ever visit Parma then I very much doubt I would go for Chinese. (Nor would I go for a pizza in Beijing.) But I live in South London and I love the fact that when I go shopping I rub shoulders with people from all over the world and can find authentic ingredients from every continent which I have to purchase using sign language.

 

But doesn’t this go against the grain of both the Taste the Origin campaign and So Shall We Reap. From a sustainability point of view isn’t it better to stick to British food? Locally grown and transported a minimum number of miles. And from a gastronomic slant isn’t it better to stick to ‘what grows together goes together’? After all what could be better than a glass of red Burgundy and a coq au vin or a Barbera d’Asti and a risotto flavoured with parmigiano-reggiano, combinations that have grown up hand in hand over centuries?

 

From a foodie angle there’s certainly something to be said for this ‘if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it’ argument. But that takes out the fun of experimenting. I was initially surprised to see New Zealand chef, Peter Gordon demonstrating at a press conference that puts so much emphasis on food origins. Gordon is well known for fusion food and here he cooked up a risotto that substituted Japanese miso for the stock and used oriental mushrooms such as shiitake. The result was as flavoursome risotto as I have ever tasted and it had a creative edge that encourages people to cook, eat and experiment with food in a way that has to be good for nutrition and well-being. (Although I’m not sure what Italian die-hards would say about it.)

 

But while international foods are great in the kitchen, what do they really cost? They can hardly be described as marching to the drum of biology if they are transported all over the globe just to please our spoiled palates. I asked Gordon about ‘food miles’ and a flash of annoyance flashed across the mild mannered chef’s face. He told me that he wished that the expression ‘food miles’ had never been invented and that he had written an article in The Independent criticising this knee-jerk concept. I dug it out.

 

He had written with barely concealed exasperation that ‘Eighty-two per cent of vehicle kilometres associated with transporting food consumed in the UK are generated within the UK itself, for example by big freight lorries burning fossil fuels carrying food round the M25; or going to and from warehouses in the middle of nowhere.’

 

I am sure that there’s a lot in this argument, and the concept of ‘food miles’ is ridiculously simple, and doesn’t take into account the cost of producing food, using green houses, irrigation etc. Nor would I ever advocate an entirely home-produced diet, British food is global-centric now and the better for it. But I still don’t buy how transporting lamb/apples etc from New Zealand when our own farmers are suffering and Britain is reduced to importing 80% of its own food can ever be justifiable.

 

But I whole heartedly agreed with Gordon when he spoke with passion about finding the best ingredients, as Tudge describes these are the ‘ones that are made in harmony with the natural landscape’, ‘march to the drum of biology’ and meet the ‘human requirement for good food’.

 

And I applaud The Discover the Origin campaign. My only criticism is that it is restricted to these five products. I would love to see more food and wine under this umbrella, a real marketing push for PDO, after all there are so many lovely things from all over Britain: stilton cheese; Kentish cob nuts and travel further a field and even the most restless cook will always find something to experiment with. The PDO system reminds us that we don’t live out of supermarkets, but from the bounty of the land, and that is something we should respect.

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] So Shall We Reap by Colin Tudge, Penguin, 2003. 

Katrina’s Website

The drama of French food makes great TV even if these extravagances do not really show how France eats today.

Last weekend I watched two programmes about French food. The first was a documentary on BBC4 called France on a Plate, the second was the 1973 Marco Ferreri film: la Grande Bouffe. They both showed a different kind of French food to the food I know and love. This wasn’t the fresh salads and fruit arranged like Elysium Fields on market stalls in the Quartier Latin nor was it the pâtés and cheeses of harvest lunches in the Loire or the casseroles that keep out the cold in the Alps. No, this is haute cuisine, glazed, reduced, minced, decorated and left quivering in aspic jelly. It is food that resembles a precocious child’s multi-coloured plastic model and has little to do with natural produce or balanced nutrition.

The presenter of the France on a Plate documentary, Andrew Hussey, a man of Falstaffian proportions, talked about how extreme cuisine has been used to demonstrate an idea of French cultural supremacy. How haute cuisine is a metaphor for ‘la gloire de la France’ and eating has been taken to the levels of an ‘extreme sport’. Or how making a galantine in the shape of a swan or cooking a leg of lamb so it looks like a pineapple somehow cements France’s place at the cultural top table.

The programme also looked at how the great chefs through out history have created food that reflected their eras. There was Chef François Vatel who tried to usurp Varenne, chef to Louis XIV, when the monarch visited Château de Chantilly. Tragically, due to storms at sea, the fish, the main course of the banquet, did not arrive and Vatel, unable to live with the shame, committed suicide by stabbing himself to death. The fish arrived shortly afterwards.

In more recent times Chef Paul Bocuse, the star of the nineteen eighties, wryly summed up his signature nouvelle cuisine as being ‘nothing on the plate, and everything was on the bill.’ Truth from the horse’s mouth.

Now the great star of today’s French gastronomy is Chef Pierre Gagnaire, who, in the spirit of the twenty-first century, creates fantastic fusion cuisine combining influences of cooking from all over the world, arguably reflecting that France is now a multi-cultural country.

  My second weekend viewing, La Grande Bouffe, filmed in 1973 pre the elegance and austerity of nouvelle cuisine, or the global-centricity of contemporary chefs. It shows a style of French cooking that is about showing off French ingredients and French cooking methods, although there is a nod to Italian pasta.

It is the story of four men who retreat to a house in an unnamed suburb with the intention of eating themselves to death. They are joined for dinner by three skinny prostitutes and a local teacher, the stunningly beautiful and full bosomed Andrea.

They cook a feast that is gargantuan, unctuous and very, very complicated: several types of poultry are pierced on to skewers then presented like an enormous porcupine; this is followed by a whole piglet stuffed with chestnuts and truffles then glazed until it glistens and if that isn’t enough, the third course is a great tureen of cassoulet. The ensemble devour this feast as though their lives, or more accurately their deaths, depend on it.

They continue eating over several days until the four heroes meet their demise by being overtaken by their own particular vice with Dantésque symmetry. Michel the great chef of the piece dies gorging himself on a pâté made of duck marinated in port, chicken marinated in sherry and goose marinated in champagne, the three meats are minced and then fashioned into a great architectural carbuncle. Only Andrea lives on. Only she has the constitution to survive this marathon of eating.

La Grande Bouffe  is film of such opulence, gluttony and debauchery that it makes the recent Californian paean to wine and food: Sideways, seem like a Disney cartoon. It is a voluptuous triumph of vulgarity.

But the real point of La Grande Bouffe, apart from being very, very entertaining, is to mock the Bourgeois French obsession with complicated food. The idea that la gloire is associated with gluttony, that cooking is about taking food as far as way from its roots as possible and that it is desirable to spend such a vast amount of time at the dining table.

But things have evolved since this film was made in 1973, in contemporary France food no longer holds the same pride of place making la Grande Bouffe something of a swan song. As Andrew Hussey said in France on a Plate ‘the new popular chefs in France are Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders.’ Life is now about eating and living faster. Or as my elegant and intellectual friend Veronique, who is as fond of a good restaurant as the next Parisian, said ‘I’m not going to spend my life reading recipe books.’

France may not have the obsession with ludicrously complicated cuisine that it once had, but it’s still a fantastic place to eat and buy food. And that food will reflect the era we live in, fast for some, but also healthier, more international, more conscious of the way it is produced. And that to my belly has to be good news although perhaps it doesn’t make quite as luscious TV. 

Katrina’s Website

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.